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125 years, 4 homes: Here’s how San Luis Obispo library has changed over the years

The first thing barbarians do when they come to town is sack the library.

Fortunately, they haven’t been around these parts for at least 125 years.

One marker of transition from frontier anarchy to civilization is the arrival of literature.

In 1894, San Luis Obispo celebrated two milestones. The Southern Pacific railroad brought the train to town on May 5, and civic leaders met to plan the library nine days later, as historian Dan Krieger noted in a May 6, 1993, Times Past column.

Tribune editor Benjamin Brooks had advocated for a library in 1892, and the arrival of the Southern Pacific railroad in town had been the result of civic coordination and that energy was harnessed to start the library.

(A caution to readers with delicate dispositions: The next sentence starts with the “S” word.)

The San Luis Obispo City/County Library. Joe Johnston

Subscriptions were the price of admission when the first San Luis Obispo library opened on the top floor of the J.P. Andrews Bank building in 1894. Since then, library buildings have been within three blocks of the original; the current library is located just up Osos Street.

At that first library, there were 768 volumes for well-to-do patrons —including philanthropist Phoebe Hearst, historian and editor Myron Angel, viticulturist Pierre Dallidet and Pismo Beach founder John Price — to check out.

Patrons could pay 50 cents a month or buy a life membership for $50.

Adjusted for inflation, that fee translates to roughly $13 a month in 2019 dollars.

By the end of the first year, the private library ran low on funds and closed evenings to save on lighting expenses.

history center
San Luis Obispo’s first free library, the Carnegie Library, is the home to the History Center. Joe Johnston

Three years after the private library was founded, trustees transferred the property to the city of San Luis Obispo.

The county stepped up in 1919 with the County Free Library Act, so we can celebrate a 100-year library anniversary in 2019 as well.

Funding has often been a combination of government support, volunteers and outside fundraising.

Andrew Carnegie gave both San Luis Obispo (1905) and Paso Robles (1906) $10,000 donations for libraries.

San Luis Obispo’s Carnegie library was made of Bishop Peak granite, Los Berros quarried sandstone and local brick.

William H. Weeks designed both buildings. The libraries have been such a central part of their communities that both have since been retrofitted for millions.

The Carnegie Library in Paso Robles The Tribune

Now both Carnegie buildings house historical organizations: the Paso Robles Historical Society and the History Center of San Luis Obispo County in San Luis Obispo.

The county and most local cities have since combined efforts through a countywide public library system. Paso Robles has its own, independent library system.

On May 17, 1955, the Telegram-Tribune reported the Carnegie library was replaced with a building designed by local architect John Badgley. The new building was built and furnished at a cost of $160,000, or about $10 per city resident at the time.

The wall, made of “random rubble masonry,” came from San Simeon Creek rocks, and a sloped ceiling helped with acoustics. The aluminum-and-glass section was then the largest public installation between Los Angeles and San Francisco at the time.

This was before the Courthouse Annex or county Administrative Office came on the scene.

The “rubble wall” of the 1955 San Luis Obispo library was built from rocks from San Simeon Creek. David Middlecamp

The 10,300 square-foot metal, glass and masonry building now houses San Luis Obispo Repertory Theatre.

The San Luis Obispo City/County Library opened at 995 Palm St. in Februrary 1989.

Library funding is often the first place raided in a crisis. When Proposition 13 crunched county property tax revenue, libraries in 13 rural communities were closed and six cities had hours reduced. Children’s reading programs were shut down in some outlying communities.

The program lost a quarter of its funding and was forced to layoff 15 employees.

The community rallied with protests and fund raising.

One of the most popular annual fundraisers in San Luis Obispo is the annual book sale organized by San Luis Obispo Friends of the Library.

Computers have replaced card catalogs. Movies and music can be borrowed from the library, and late fees have been eliminated. The library has added programs such as SLO Makerspace and offers meeting rooms for organizations.

The library is also an invaluable local storehouse of history, from books to microfilm of local newspapers.

Libraries have an positive impact on communities.

To learn more about library services, programs and events, check out its website,


A math error in the cost of the 1955 building has been corrected in this story.

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